Pulling into the train stationWhen Duane Johnson retired from the railroad industry after 46 years, his interest in trains remained. Instead of iron, steel and power, this time the trains were of the wooden variety.
By: Laura Kruse, New Richmond News
When Duane Johnson retired from the railroad industry after 46 years, his interest in trains remained. Instead of iron, steel and power, this time the trains were of the wooden variety.
Johnson and his wife Carol have made themselves known around the Hammond area for their large and small wooden train collection, all made by Duane.
But now, after more than 20 years of creating and touring with the wooden wonders, the Johnsons are calling it quits.
The collection, except for a few personal favorites, will be sold at Rick’s Hobby Farm, three miles south New Richmond on Highway 65, this weekend. The show runs Aug. 8-9 from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. each day.
“I’m too old to handle it anymore,” said Johnson, 81. “They’re getting to be too heavy for me.”
Johnson’s start with trains began at age 16 in Boyceville. Since many men were off in the service, his father, who was a foreman, got him a work permit in 1944 to be a railroad section hand. In 1948, Johnson transferred to the signage department, where he stayed until 1990. A short break from his railroad career came during World War II when he was stationed in Tokyo.
Although his life-long exposure to trains was “incentive enough” to begin make models, Johnson said he always liked working with his hands.
“I was always interested in woodworking,” he explained.
His first power tool purchase came in 1954. His first woodworking projects were a dresser and crib for their oldest son.
“The crib didn’t work so well because he’d open it all the time,” Johnson chuckled. “He’d watch us lock it, then open it right back up.”
Johnson moved on to craft model steam engine trains in the early 1980s. Inspiration came from pictures in books, photographs of trains Johnson took or his imagination.
Work space was found in their attached garage.
“The car sat outside for a few years,” Johnson commented.
One project, a 1/32 scale model of a “Big Boy” engine, came after a stop in Wyoming on a car trip.
“I didn’t know there was anything that big,” he said. “And then there was the Big Boy sitting there. It was a monster.”
After seeing the train, Johnson bought a book about it and made the train to scale. The model is more than five feet long.
Another project, the Soo Line 5000, was the biggest engine the company owned.
“I did that one just to see if I could do it,” Johnson said. He could.
“And then I got into Caterpillar equipment,” Johnson explained. The models he built have moveable buckets and working tracks.
The tiny, individual pieces of track for the Caterpillars are held together by toothpicks. When they needed to be tightened, Johnson simply added a wider toothpick or dowel. Each track took about eight hours to make, he estimated.
Getting the half-inch pieces making up the track to be perfectly uniform took a fair amount of trial and error.
“Believe me, I got a lot of them,” he joked. “They don’t always turn out so good.”
One model of Caterpillar equipment he built, he first saw in action on Highway 64 between New Richmond and Somerset. He’d never seen a Caterpillar quite like that before.
“So I stood and watched it. Then I came home and built it,” Johnson said.
Another one, the 1939 D2 Cat, was requested by a customer.
“I built two of them so I had one,” he said.
Beyond trains and Caterpillar equipment, Johnson has built rocking horses, desks, tables, a playhouse, squirrel feeders, decorative yard horses and caboose-shaped coin banks. He’s also made toy trains, trucks and puzzles.
He estimates he’s made 16 different types of Caterpillars and more than 60 toys and trains over the years.
Some of his work has gone to London, Georgia and California, he said.
When not building things, Johnson and Carol used to travel to parades with a float filled with large wooden model trains. Their first parade was in 1997; all the models now on the float were finished by 2000, Johnson said. The float and all its parts will be for sale this weekend as well.
The float has also traveled to St. Croix Central Elementary School, missing only one of the past six years.
“The kids enjoy it because they can get up to it and touch it,” Johnson said. Another perk for the kids was ringing the bell attached to the float.
The Johnsons have taken trains to the New Richmond Heritage Center and the St. Croix County Nursing Home.
When they lived in Burlington prior to moving to Hammond in 1996, they took the collection to hospitals, banks, nursing homes, Cub Scout meetings and Boy Scout meetings.
“That was when I was real ambitious,” Johnson said with a laugh.
Through all those stops, Johnson has heard his fair share of train stories.
“Mostly it was little old ladies telling me about their husbands working on the railroad,” he said. “There was always something about the steam engines. People loved the railroad.”
One reminder of Johnson’s work will remain even after the sale this weekend. That’s the displays in the lawn at Rick’s Hobby Farm. The large train, airplane, fire truck and paddle boat were all made by Johnson just for that purpose.